In the midst of The Great Stagnation, 44 states face budget shortfalls for the 2012 fiscal year, much of the the equity of the middle class is upside down, and the job market remains a question mark. I can tell you of at least three families I know who, despite two people in the household working full-time, have had to go through bankruptcy because of lagging wages and overall inflation. So, despite my own reliance on and appreciation for federal funding for the arts and culture, I have to step out and say that the time has come for a serious assessment of priorities.
Much protest has flooded my inbox of late about the Obama Administration's proposed cuts of 12 to 33 percent of funding to the NEA, NEH, and grants to libraries and museums. Those are steep cuts, but keep in mind that there are those in Congress who want to do away with those programs (and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) altogether. In terms of the budget compromises to be made, what the Obama people are proposing is a negotiating position; in the end, the cuts will probably be much deeper, but need to be made in order to save the programs. Frankly, if you ask me, it seems more important to save funding for things like education, health care, unemployment benefits, and other essential social services. The arts are an essential part of life, of course, but in my view, when I drive down some streets in Miami and see all the overgrown, dingy foreclosed and abandoned homes, I have to wonder what happened to the people who lived in those homes. Something tells me they're not worrying about their tickets to the opera or their annuals membership to the museum.
But really, in the bigger picture, what the nation needs to do is rethink priorities. Can we be content with a more efficient way of living, with conservation and green living, and with making do with less of everything? Can we agree that some business make too much money at too high a public cost, and they should be regulated and taxed accordingly? Can we raise the minimum wage, as well as provide health care and educational opportunity to all people? Can we stop believing in the American myths that keep people voting again and again against their own interests?
If that's a progressive agenda, then so be it. And if we can start moving in the direction of progress, then maybe we'd feel more comfortable about funding the arts and other cultural institutions. For now, I suspect we might need to do a more effective job of taking care of the basics. When there's no money left, you do what you have to do to survive.
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